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'I Loved Myself for the First Time': Women Prisoners Heal Trauma with Dance

High percentages of incarcerated women suffer from untreated PTSD. One quickly expanding program is successfully using dance to help them move forward.

When 38-year-old Cassy Bustos first saw a poster advertising the Dance to be Free program at La Vista Correctional Facility in Pueblo, Colorado, she felt a rare spark of excitement.

It was Spring 2016 and Bustos was in the midst of serving her three-and-a-half year sentence for first-degree burglary and third-degree assault. Prison was taxing, and to cope, she had been following a cardio, weights, and yoga routine. But up to that point, there was no dancing in prison. She loved to dance.

At the first class, Bustos and three dozen other women gathered in the correctional facility’s gym as Lucy Wallace, the founder of Dance to be Free, led them through a variety of dance styles, from hip-hop to lyrical, set to songs by artists such as Beyoncé and Sia. Students ranged from enthusiastic to preoccupied and bored at first, but towards the end of the class, nearly everyone seemed engaged.

“It was so much fun. I was covered in sweat and was immediately hooked,” Bustos says. “Afterward, [Wallace] left DVDs [of her dance routine] she had recorded at her studio, so we could watch later. We would rent the DVDs and dance in the gym on our own.”

Wallace wasn’t merely offering a movement class, however, but an embodied form of therapy designed to help heal trauma in incarcerated women. Soon, she introduced journal assignments, poetry, and writing prompts to encourage the women to reflect on past trauma and open up to each other.

“They became more vulnerable with the writing, poetry and group sharing that followed,” Wallace says. “And that’s a step towards healing.”

The idea of developing a prison dance program came about when Wallace decided she wanted to turn her Denver dance studio into a non-profit. A friend suggested she start a program for incarcerated women, and the idea immediately clicked. For the past 11 years, she had been teaching movement classes inspired by Chantal Pierrat's popular Soul Sweat routines, which are designed to exercise both “body and spirit.” So, she already understood dance to be not only a performance art, but a means of emotional release and self-betterment.

One 2015 study concluded that nearly half of incarcerated women in the US meet diagnostic criteria for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, while other studies have found higher percentages of incarcerated women suffering from the symptoms, which can become exacerbated by having little to no access to treatment in prison as well as the day-to-day experience of being incarcerated. In addition, according to the Correctional Association of New York, three quarters of women prisoners have histories of severe physical abuse by an intimate partner during adulthood, while 82 percent experienced physical or sexual abuse as minors.

Wallace believes that these high levels of trauma contribute to the high rate of recidivism, which among women inmates is 68 percent within five years of release.

Indeed, Bustos says that substance abuse was at the center of the convictions for most of the women who she knew at LVCF, who were in for crimes ranging from habitual shoplifting to drug sales to vehicular manslaughter. And it’s research has shown strong correlations between drug abuse and untreated trauma.

“Women are returning to prison due to untreated PTSD,” Wallace asserts.

Meanwhile, dance and movement therapy are gaining traction as methods of treating PTSD. Even VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, the largest integrated healthcare organization in the Department of Veterans Affairs, has begun offering Dance for Veterans, a program that includes movement, creativity, social cohesion and relaxation to treat veterans with PTSD.

When Wallace began her first prison dance program at the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility in 2015, she had a group of eight women in a large gym. As soon as they began dancing to the first song by Lorde, one of the inmates exclaimed, “Oh, this is spiritual.”

“It was as if they understood that this program is not about exercise, but about emotional healing,” Wallace recalls.

Wallace started out with one-hour classes on Sundays. After six months of success, she added a teacher training curriculum so the inmates could have a trade they could utilize upon their release. It also allowed women who were still serving their term to sustain the program without her, so she could take the program on the road. Her next stop was La Vista, where Bustos joined.

It didn’t take Bustos long to realize she wasn’t in an ordinary exercise class. “I was actually healing parts of my soul that had been damaged for years… As most people I met in prison, I was molested as a child and had a very skewed image of my own sexuality,” she says. “DTBF taught me to dance any way I wanted, without feeling objectified or even self-conscious. Plus I used to be a perfectionist. DTBF taught me I could do something to just have fun. … These lessons carried over into all aspects of my life.”

The dance class community also carried over into prison social life; participants began greeting each other as they passed in the courtyard and developed a special bond. “It kind of snuck up on us,” Bustos reflects. “We didn’t know what was happening. We thought we were getting a workout, but it was liberating our souls, our trauma. That made us feel closer to each other.”

Thirty-two-year-old Maris Moore, who also took Wallace’s class at La Vista, echoes the sentiment. “A sisterhood was formed,” Moore says. “Before that, I didn’t have any women friends unless I was fucking them. But this was different. [Dance to be Free] created a community, a binding experience. All of a sudden, we had a tribe.”

Moore received her first felony at the age of 15. Before she was released this past year from La Vista Correctional Facility, she had spent much of her life in juvenile detention facilities, group homes, and prison. Most recently, she was charged with manufacturing and distribution of DMT, hallucinogenic mushrooms, and ecstasy.

“The first time I was raped, I was 12. Ever since, I had a warped sense of self, love and sexuality,” Moore says.

Her breakthrough moment arrived when she felt unexpected tears streaming down her cheeks during class. “At first I was like, ‘Oh, God I’m crying. I’m such a little bitch,’” Moore says. “Then I realized that it was okay to cry, because I loved myself for the first time ever. I didn’t love myself before. I even tried to kill myself. The tears were moving a blockage inside.”

After completing teacher training, Moore, Bustos, and a dozen other inmates began facilitating the dance program two nights a week. Bustos later took the program to a halfway house she stayed in upon her release in December of 2016. Once she got out, Wallace sent Bustos 20 DVDs with around 40 routines she could use. “I dance now in my own home,” Bustos says. “I still utilize my new sense of confidence and self-worth. I finally learned that I deserve a good life and now have the skills to obtain just that.”

Since La Vista, Dance To Be Free has expanded to Nebraska, Washington, Arkansas, and Hawaii. The program is in eight prisons and five states (soon to add Mississippi), and it has certified over 225 women prisoners as dance teachers. Wallace hopes to expand to every state, and even abroad.

Bustos is now married and is expecting her first child in May. “Everyone is living in a prison of some kind,” she says. “You have to go deep inside to find freedom.

Ironically, while I was in an actual prison, Dance to be Free helped me be free inside my own body. That’s the best kind of freedom.”



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